June 18, 2024

Last week I wrote about Alfred Schutz, an excellent philosopher who has much to teach us. This week I’d like to talk about another philosopher, David Stove, who falls into the same category. He has a big advantage over Schutz. He writes with great vigor, is easy to follow, and has an immense capacity for satiric wit. Murray Rothbard would have enjoyed this passage from one of his essays about John Start Mill: “Mill pleaded in On Liberty for the widest variety of what he chose to call ‘experiments in living.’ The phrase was a sickeningly dishonest attempt to capture some of the deserved prestige of science for things which had not the remotest connection with science; principally—need I say—certain sexual and domestic arrangements of a then ‘novel kind.’”

In what follows, I’m going to talk about three arguments of Stove’s that show his ability to use logic to expose fallacious ways of thinking.

Current irrationalist modes of thought (e.g., Marxism, feminist epistemology, and deconstruction) share a common pattern. Each contends that because our thinking about the world is conditioned in a certain way, it does not grasp the world as it really exists.

Marxists contend that class position determines thought. Those of us unfortunate enough to be classed as “bourgeois” cannot be expected to grasp the intricacies of the Marxist dialectic. (Of course, the thought of proletarians and their self-proclaimed leaders is also class determined, if this theory is correct, but somehow the Marxists sweep this aside.) Feminist epistemologists argue in a similar way, substituting “gender” for “class.” And deconstructionists go Marxists and feminist epistemologists one better. They claim that language by its nature dooms everyone to paradox and contradiction.

Stove says that a simple logical fallacy lies at the heart of this pattern of argument. After Stove exposes the fallacy, the intellectual temptation of the pattern dissolves.

The story is best told in his own words:

The members of this family [of arguments] are so very various, that it is not easy to distill a schema of which they are all instances. But it is not necessary, either, because their family resemblance is so pronounced that, once you have met one member, you will easily recognize any other. The following [is a] specimen. . . . We can think of things only under the forms of our thought, so, we cannot think of things as they are in themselves.

Stove points out that the conclusion does not follow from the premise. Of course we can think of things only under the forms of our own thought: this is only a pretentious way of saying that we think as we think. But from this nothing follows about whether our thought can attain truth. Stove sums up: “Only three things are essential: idealism in the conclusion, tautology in the premise, and pomposity throughout.”

For example, the Marxist claim is “Our thought is conditioned by our class position.” Either this statement is a mere tautology, as Stove alleges in his pattern, in which case it is to be read, “The thought of members of our class is the thought of members of our class.” In this case, nothing whatsoever follows about whether our thoughts are true. Alternatively, it is an empirical hypothesis of some unspecified kind, and once more, how it proves that class-determined thought masks reality is not obvious. Readers may apply for themselves Stove’s analysis to feminist epistemology and deconstruction.

The second of Stove’s arguments I’m going to discuss is his criticism of a use often made of Thomas Kuhn’s notion of a “paradigm shift.” According to Kuhn, science does not proceed by means of universally rational standards. Instead, a group of scientists who favor a new paradigm replace those entangled in the problems of the previously dominant model. Stove quickly locates the central fallacy: “Now you could . . . take all this just as an account of the history of science, and find more or less of value in it . . . but that is not at all how . . . Kuhn himself takes it. He will not talk himself, or let you talk if he can help it of truth in science, or . . . of falsity: he claims he cannot understand that class of talk.”

Kuhn has thus wrongly eliminated the normative dimension of science. From the fact, or alleged fact, that scientists have acted in a certain way, Kuhn wrongly concludes that what they do cannot be evaluated by principles of reason. Once more, Stove stands firm as a champion of reason, in a way that Misesians and Rothbardians can only applaud.

My final example of Stove’s defense of rationality is his analysis of sociobiologists, such as E.O. Wilson, who claim that morality stems not from reason or direct perception of the good but rather from Darwinian imperatives. We help our children, e.g., because doing so helps us perpetuate our genes. Animals that practice “kin selection” win out in the struggle for survival, other things being equal, against those who do not. What we call moral behavior is what helped our prehistoric ancestors to survive and has as a result been built into us.

If we wish to claim that a free-market order is required by objectively true morality, we have a vital interest in this argument. We can’t look with favor on a theory that collapses morality into ancestral instincts.

We must once more, then, acknowledge a debt to David Stove, who subjects the sociobiological view to withering assault. As he notes, it simply does not fit the facts. According to the doctrine of kin selection, people should be as ready to sacrifice themselves for their brothers and sisters as for their children: both your brother and your child share half your genes. But of course people do not usually act as the theory predicts. In like manner, the theory predicts that an animal “will always sacrifice its life to save the lives of three or more conspecifics with each of whom it shares half its genes [such as its offspring or siblings]” This prediction fails in even more spectacular fashion than the previous example.

I would add that the most obvious defect of kin selection as an account of morality is that people often prefer their wife or husband to a close relative, yet your spouse will share many fewer genes with you than relatives.

Stove’s unfailing defense of reason and his polemical skills of surpassing excellence command our respect, and unlike Schutz, he isn’t best taken in small doses.